In Jammu, communal politics over a barbaric crime

The horrific gang-rape and brutal murder of an eight-year-old nomad girl in Kathua district has not only put the restive Jammu and Kashmir state on edge, it has sparked anger and outrage across the country.  PTI file photo

The horrific gang-rape and brutal murder of an eight-year-old nomad girl in Kathua district has not only put the restive Jammu and Kashmir state on edge, it has sparked anger and outrage across the country. Ever since the mutilated body of the girl was found in Rassana forests of Kathua on January 17, a week after her abduction, the case, instead of becoming a rallying point for all people to seek justice for her and her family, has been turned into a communal flashpoint in an already polarised state.

Police investigation reveals that the attack on the girl was motivated by religious politics, with a group of local men planning to scare away the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal community by committing the heinous crime. The Bakarwal community crisscross the Himalayas with their goats and buffaloes. In his confession, one of the accused is said to have told police that the little girl’s only fault was that “she was born in a family of Bakarwals”. Forensic reports show that she was drugged, repeatedly raped, burned, strangled and bludgeoned with a rock.

The investigation revealed that the girl was confined in a local temple for several days and given sedatives that kept her unconscious. Sanji Ram, a 60-year-old retired revenue officer and custodian of the temple, allegedly planned the crime with the help of police officials Surender Verma, Anand Dutta, Tilak Raj and Deepak Khajuria. Ram’s son, Vishal, his juvenile nephew and his friend Parvesh Kumar are also accused of raping and murdering her.

In a disgrace to civilised society, the demand for justice for her was given a communal colour by politicians not only from the BJP and Congress, but the National Conference, too, and lawyers actively protested in favour of the accused.

Conflict had been brewing in recent years between Muslim nomads and local Hindus over land disputes in the area. The locals claim that the nomads were encroaching on their lands. When the girl’s family wanted to bury her in a graveyard nearby where they had bought some land a few years ago, a right-wing group threatened them with violence if they were to do so. The family had to walk seven miles to bury her in another village. These shocking details remained under the carpet for weeks despite the issue reverberating in the state assembly in January-February.

As soon as the girl’s mutilated body was recovered by police, some groups and politicians from the ruling BJP and the Congress in Jammu region tried to stall investigation by the state Crime Branch. After the arrest of the eight accused, the case assumed a communal colour. On February 16, members of the extremist ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’, reportedly headed by BJP state secretary Vijay Sharma, marched through the streets of Kathua, carrying the tri-colour, demanding that the police release the accused and handover the case to the CBI. Their grouse was that most police officers investigating the case were Kashmiri Muslims and could not be trusted.

On March 1, senior state BJP ministers Lal Singh and Prakash Chander Ganga addressed a rally in Kathua, organised by the Manch, and called the investigation by the Crime Branch, which was being monitored by the high court, ‘jungle raj’. Congress party kept silent on the rape for as long as it could. The advocate leading the lawyers’ protest, the president of the Jammu Bar Association, BS Slathia, was once the polling agent of Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

However, the reprehensible bid by lawyers at the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) court in Kathua on April 9 to block the Crime Branch sleuths from filing a charge-sheet in the case, sparked outrage across the country over the politicisation of the heinous crime.

Hours after his midnight candle-light march at India Gate on April 13, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence over the rape incidents in Kathua and Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao was “unacceptable.”

Caught on the backfoot, Modi spoke for the first time, assuring people that no culprit would be spared. “Our daughters will definitely get justice,” Modi said. Immediately, the two BJP ministers Lal Singh and Prakash Ganga submitted their resignations, something that even the BJP’s alliance partner PDP had sought.

Politics and criticism apart, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has so far done well by standing firm. Despite severe pulls and pressures from ousted ministers and some BJP leaders, Mehbooba didn’t succumb. Her firmness in dealing with the accused ensured that the issue didn’t snowball into a major controversy in Kashmir Valley, where already a tense atmosphere prevails following a number of civilian deaths in firing by security forces.

The Supreme Court’s suo motu decision to examine the case and send a notice to the Bar Council of Jammu and Kashmir for preventing the filing of a charge-sheet against the rape accused may prove to be a watershed moment in the case. It has left no scope for further politics or attempts to shield the culprits. The decision is also a stern warning to all those in power who try to sabotage the justice system.

In the last few days, voices have started to emerge from within the state BJP itself on behalf of the victim and against supporting the accused. Sports and showbiz celebrities and politicians cutting across party lines have sought justice for the victim. If only people took off religious and political blinkers and saw this to be the horrific crime that it was, it would make the barbaric perpetrators cringe with fear and shame.

The horrific December 2012 Delhi gang-rape shook people across the country, forcing the government to pass new laws and establish fast-track courts. The January 2018 Kathua incident has once again united India, albeit three months late. The perpetrators of such heinous crimes, irrespective of their caste, religion or colour must be brought to justice. It is now for the courts to deliver justice to the victim. But will that happen? Only time will tell.

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